Thursday, July 02, 2009

Understanding anti-Semitism

"Is it possible to 'understand' the rise in 'anti-Semitism'?", asks Ben White? The inverted commas are his - and one is tempted to fall into the default sarcastic teacher mode and ask, "What's 'with' them, exactly?" - but I don't want to do that. This isn't going to turn into a semantic argument about what people mean when they say 'understand' or 'understandable' because blogosphere experience would suggest that this is more than pointless - as this offering, for example, undoubtedly is.

Instead I'd say this: the answer to Ben White's question is of course it's possible to 'understand' anti-Semitism - intellectually rather than empathetically - but it helps if you aren't a complete ignoramus. Here I'm thinking those of us who are rather concerned about this issue should rely less on the techniques of literary criticism and semantics. Because there is evidence, both historical and contemporary, that can be brought to bear here.

How do we know that contemporary anti-Semitism cannot be reduced to the behaviour of the state of Israel? One reason is simply because it predated it - the themes, the narrative, the material - by some time. Even White feels obliged to acknowledge this:
"Thirdly, European culture has a history of anti-Semitism (as it has also been guilty of racism to other peoples) that has been, and probably still is, embedded in collective consciousness. Its roots can be traced, at least to some extent, to the shameful teachings of many in the Church."
Mr White has a nice touch for understatement, I think you'll agree? How 'many in the Church'? Fairly comprehensive for most of the time, I'll think you'll find. Orthodox, you could even say. To what extent? I think most historians would file that under 'fairly large'... On reflection, perhaps the semantics thing is unavoidable. But this shouldn't distract us from what we already know or, in the case of the rest, what they should know.

This most ancient of prejudices has persistent themes, as most people are aware - but we should also be aware that its resilience has partly to do with its adaptability. So, for example, with the Christian anti-Semites - conversion was the solution. This through fire if necessary, as we saw with the Inquisition.

As European clerical tyranny began to exhaust its rage and fury, the milder conversion of assimilation became the preferred cure for the Jewish problem. But with the rise of fascism and the new pseudo-science of biological racism, European anti-Semitism takes a new malevolent twist: assimilation (which always had its limits) becomes the problem rather than the cure.

It is in this kind of context that the whole Israel thing should be understood, which brings me back to White's dismal piece. Chief amongst the causes of anti-Semitism for him?
"One is the state of Israel..."
The problem with the Jews is that they have a state that behaves badly? But it used to be that they didn't have a state that was the problem - that they were a wandering people that lacked a feeling for Blood and Soil - rootless, cosmopolitan, disloyal.

It has been frequently suggested that pointing out any of this - or indeed referring to anti-Semitism in any capacity whatsoever - is a 'red herring' designed to distract from Israel's occupation. I feel I must demur and insist that one thing is not another thing. I'd be interested to know, for example, what it is about Israel's behaviour that leads 31% of Europeans [pdf - p. 16] to believe that Jews had at least something to do with the present economic troubles? Or one could ask what it is about Israel that has provoked some 23% of Europeans to believe that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ? No doubt we should look forward to some argument suggesting that this isn't anti-Semitism because there is no evidence to suggest Europeans any longer have any hang-ups about the whole Deicide thing?

But we needn't persist with this line because one of the interesting things thrown up by the survey linked above is that most Europeans do not share the comfortable delusion that the rise in anti-Jewish feeling can be reduced to attitudes towards Israel (see p. 26). Is this indicative of a better understanding of both the present situation and of history than amongst those who feel - how to put it delicately? - rather relaxed about the contemporary anti-imperialist gloss that is being given to old-fashioned Jew-hatred? If so, I find that unsurprising.

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